Monday, November 17, 2014

UU Sermon Writing - Part 6

This is my final post in this series on UU sermon writing.  I've been trying to establish that sermon-writing for UU ministers is a more time-intensive practice than in many other preaching traditions, that it takes a bigger percentage of time for the new minister, the long-term minister, and the part-time minister.  That being most of us, what I'm saying is it takes a whole lot of time and there are a lot of variables that make it take even longer than some might think, and it's not a one-size-fits-all thing.

So then I've turned to what we can do about it.  In my last post I reviewed the ideas of theme preaching and preaching extemporaneously, both of which I recommend.  The review of Nate Walker's upcoming book Exorcising Preaching: Crafting Intellectually Honest Worship, which he kindly mentioned in the comments of the last post, says, "all of us are smarter than any one of us."  This is why theme-based preaching is so helpful.

So I think finding ways to make the sermon-writing process easier is good.  And I think those calling for extemporaneous preaching as a way to get out of our heads and into our hearts may be right about that.  But the truth is even with talk of "congregations and beyond" and even with branding and insight into new types of ministry, right now the Sunday morning worship is still the heart of what we church ministers do.  It's appropriate that we throw much of our lives into that work, and while it's always good to find ways to make that easier, another option is to take that work that we've poured our lives into and use it more

One thing that the internet age has done is upped the ante for good preaching.  No longer is it sufficient to be the best preacher in town.  An "excellent sermon" is now a higher standard as we can easily compare our sermon on any subject to dozens of colleagues' sermons with a simple internet search. At the same time, we're firmly rooted in an academic tradition which prizes original writing and academic honesty.  Ministers found guilty of plagiarism face strong consequences.  And I don't disagree with that -- plagiarism is not honest.  But think about this idea for a moment.  What if instead of always crafting our own sermons we sometimes shared, openly, what we felt was the best writing out there on the subject at hand -- even if it was not our own?  Why shouldn't it be okay for some of our worship services to be focused on the work we find to be most excellent in our movement?  Right now a good sermon gets shared maybe five times, for most of us, except for those who are invited regularly as guest speakers who might use a sermon more than that.  You might preach it once in your own church, twice doing pulpit exchanges, once at a General Assembly workshop if it wins an award, and then it might get picked up and read at a UU fellowship.  Given that most of us guest-preach or do pulpit exchanges only a few times a year, I'm guessing, most of our best work ends at our own church's doors.  And sometimes we just know, let's face it, that a sermon isn't working for us, and that our words are not coming together on a subject.  Maybe it should be more okay to say, "my colleague X speaks eloquently on this subject, and today I'm going to share their sermon, with a few changes that I'll mention where I'm personalizing it to our location." We should take those award-winning sermons and archive them (with an index of topics or some other search method in place), and make our own best work more broadly available. 

It's a radical, and uncomfortable, idea, I suspect.  But I think we need to think outside the box like this in this new era.

More radical than this idea is something that's already being proposed, and that's multi-site ministries.  Look for a new webpage up about this in the next couple of weeks.  If I think about it then, I'll come back and link it in, but it's still being developed right now (for now, here's the GA workshop).  But this is the work coming out of Scott Tayler's office at the UUA and with regional staff focused on it across the country (in MidAmerica, that would be Dori Davenport).  When congregations are yoked together in different ways, it may become more the practice that the best sermons we do will get heard in more locations -- or at least the best preachers will get heard in more locations, and hopefully have the time they need to devote to their craft.  You see, it's also true that not all of us are great at everything.  It's hard to admit it sometimes, but we all have strengths and weaknesses.  And for some of us, preaching is a weakness, yet we may have other real strengths for parish ministry.  But there aren't enough associate positions to go around if they're limited to the big churches.  That's why we need to bring congregations together so that we can all play more to our strengths and have someone else helping the church in our weakness areas. 

These are just two models of how we can reinvent the preaching role.  But we need to explore a lot more ideas like these as we respond to the changing religious landscape around us.  What are the ways in which our intellectual professorial model of the sermon is working for us, and what are the ways it is not?